Tough, rootsy grooves and plentiful hooks give this mbaqanga music broad appeal.
Jon Lusk 2010
The first in a three-part series showcasing ‘underground’ South African music of the 1960s and 1970s, this volume is subtitled ‘Township sounds from the golden age of mbaqanga’. More widely known as ‘township jive’, mbaqanga (a Zulu word for the local staple of steamed cornmeal bread) combined rural Zulu folklore and harmony vocals with ‘western’ guitars, drums and even brass. Mbaqanga was at its peak in the later part of this period, and aside from the opening maskanda (a related style) of the opening track, this compilation focuses largely on it.
The music is unmistakeably South African (and specifically Zulu), but its tough and rootsy grooves, plentiful hooks and amazing economy give it a broad appeal, and it still sounds fresh today. Few of these 20 tracks make it over three minutes, during which the musicians hit the ground running, kick arse and disappear in a heartbeat. Three-minute heroes, indeed.
The most successful mbaqanga act of the time was the wonderful Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. They’re represented here by four tracks, though the group’s name varies according to the producer, record company and associated musicians, which is a little confusing. Both Umkhovu and Nomacala were also featured on the fine Earthworks profile of Mahlathini called King of the Groaners (1993), and the two other songs are fairly average examples of their music.
Happily, there’s plenty of less-familiar material that makes this more worthwhile. Melotone Sisters with Amaqala Band seem to have a male singer, very much in the ‘groaner’ vocal style popularised by Mahlathini. Lucky Strike Sisters’ Mr J.S. Mpanza features a brilliantly theatrical dialogue in the middle, and perhaps the most infectious cut is Sikhwele, by Aba-Lilizeli, which sounds like it was mastered from some crusty but very tasty vinyl. Soul Chakari, 10 To 11 and ‘Iza Wena’ Happy Africa are the best of a handful of lovely, warm instrumentals which fade out all too quickly.
The sleeve notes by David B. Coplan do a good job of explaining the cultural contexts and the precursors of mbaqanga, but are disappointingly sketchy on biographical information for most of the artists actually on the disc. As if to underline this, the small print acknowledges that not all the owners of the master rights have yet been traced. Get in touch, guys. Yebo, they owe you!